Names: Will and Orv; The Bishop’s boys
Home town: Dayton, Ohio
Aircraft designed: Wright Flyer, Wright Flyer III, Wright Flyer II, 1902 Wright Glider
Known for: Inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane, the Wright Flyer
Education (Orville Wright): 3 years high school
Occupation (Orville Wright): Printer/publisher, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer
Education (Wilbur Wright): 4 years high school
Occupation (Wilbur Wright): Editor, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer
The Wright brothers—Orville (August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912)—were two American aviation pioneers generally credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane. They made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, 4 mi (6 km) south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1904–05, the brothers developed their flying machine to make longer-running and more aerodynamic flights with the Wright Flyer II, followed by the first truly practical fixed-wing aircraft, the Wright Flyer III. The Wright brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
The brothers’ breakthrough was their creation of a three-axis control system, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds. From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to solving “the flying problem”. This approach differed significantly from other experimenters of the time who put more emphasis on developing powerful engines. Using a small home-built wind tunnel, the Wrights also collected more accurate data than any before, enabling them to design more efficient wings and propellers. Their first U.S. patent did not claim invention of a flying machine, but a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces.
The brothers gained the mechanical skills essential to their success by working for years in their Dayton, Ohio-based shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors, and other machinery. Their work with bicycles, in particular, influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. From 1900 until their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots. Their shop employee Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team, building their first airplane engine in close collaboration with the brothers.
The Wright brothers’ status as inventors of the airplane has been subject to counter-claims by various parties. Much controversy persists over the many competing claims of early aviators. Edward Roach, historian for the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, argues that they were excellent self-taught engineers who could run a small company, but they did not have the business skills or temperament to dominate the growing aviation industry.
The Wright brothers were two of seven children born to Milton Wright (1828–1917), of English and Dutch ancestry, and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831–1889), of German and Swiss ancestry. Milton Wright’s mother, Catherine Reeder, was descended from the progenitor of the Vanderbilt family and the Huguenot Gano family of New Rochelle, New York. Wilbur was born near Millville, Indiana, in 1867; Orville in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871. The brothers never married. The other Wright siblings were Reuchlin (1861–1920), Lorin (1862–1939), Katharine (1874–1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born 1870, died in infancy). The direct paternal ancestry goes back to a Samuel Wright (b. 1606 in Essex, England) who sailed to America and settled in Massachusetts in 1636.
None of the Wright children had middle names. Instead, their father tried hard to give them distinctive first names. Wilbur was named for Willbur Fisk and Orville for Orville Dewey, both clergymen that Milton Wright admired. They were “Will” and “Orv” to their friends and in Dayton, their neighbors knew them simply as “the Bishop’s kids”, or “the Bishop’s boys”.
Because of their father’s position as a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, he traveled often and the Wrights frequently moved—twelve times before finally returning permanently to Dayton in 1884. In elementary school, Orville was given to mischief and was once expelled. In 1878 when the family lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, their father brought home a toy helicopter for his two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about 1 ft (30 cm) long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the spark of their interest in flying.
Early career and research
Both brothers attended high school, but did not receive diplomas. The family’s abrupt move in 1884 from Richmond, Indiana, to Dayton, Ohio, where the family had lived during the 1870s, prevented Wilbur from receiving his diploma after finishing four years of high school. The diploma was awarded posthumously to Wilbur on April 16, 1994, which would have been his 127th birthday.
In late 1885 or early 1886 Wilbur was struck in the face by a hockey stick while playing an ice-skating game with friends, resulting in the loss of his front teeth. He had been vigorous and athletic until then, and although his injuries did not appear especially severe, he became withdrawn. He had planned to attend Yale. Instead, he spent the next few years largely housebound. During this time he cared for his mother, who was terminally ill with tuberculosis, read extensively in his father’s library and ably assisted his father during times of controversy within the Brethren Church, but also expressed unease over his own lack of ambition.
Orville dropped out of high school after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889, having designed and built his own printing press with Wilbur’s help. Wilbur joined the print shop, and in March the brothers launched a weekly newspaper, the West Side News. Subsequent issues listed Orville as publisher and Wilbur as editor on the masthead. In April 1890 they converted the paper to a daily, The Evening Item, but it lasted only four months. They then focused on commercial printing. One of their clients was Orville’s friend and classmate, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who rose to international acclaim as a ground-breaking African-American poet and writer. For a brief period the Wrights printed the Dayton Tattler, a weekly newspaper that Dunbar edited.
Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze (spurred by the invention of the safety bicycle and its substantial advantages over the penny-farthing design), in December 1892 the brothers opened a repair and sales shop (the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle Company) and in 1896 began manufacturing their own brand. They used this endeavor to fund their growing interest in flight. In the early or mid-1890s they saw newspaper or magazine articles and probably photographs of the dramatic glides by Otto Lilienthal in Germany.
1896 brought three important aeronautical events. In May, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft. In mid-year, Chicago engineer and aviation authority Octave Chanute brought together several men who tested various types of gliders over the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. In August, Lilienthal was killed in the plunge of his glider. These events lodged in the minds of the brothers, especially Lilienthal’s death. The Wright brothers later cited his death as the point when their serious interest in flight research began. Wilbur said, “Lilienthal was without question the greatest of the precursors, and the world owes to him a great debt.” In May 1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics. Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci, and Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation that year.
The Wright brothers always presented a unified image to the public, sharing equally in the credit for their invention. Biographers note that Wilbur took the initiative in 1899–1900, writing of “my” machine and “my” plans before Orville became deeply involved when the first person singular became the plural “we” and “our”. Author James Tobin asserts, “it is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of a store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from the beginning to the end.”
Neither brother married. Wilbur once quipped that he did not have time for both a wife and an airplane. Following a brief training flight he gave to a German pilot in Berlin in June 1911, Wilbur never flew again. He gradually became occupied with business matters for the Wright Company and dealing with different lawsuits. Upon dealing with the patent lawsuits, which had put great strain on both brothers, Wilbur had written in a letter to a French friend, “When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.” Wilbur spent the next year before his death traveling, where he spent a full six months in Europe attending to various business and legal matters. Wilbur urged American cities to emulate the European—particularly Parisian—philosophy of apportioning generous public space near every important public building. He was also constantly back and forth between New York, Washington and Dayton. All of the stresses were taking a toll on Wilbur physically. Orville would remark that he would “come home white”.
It was decided by the family that a new and far grander house would be built, using the money that the Wrights had earned through their inventions and business. Called affectionately Hawthorn Hill, building had begun in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood, Ohio, while Wilbur was in Europe. Katharine and Orville oversaw the project in his absence. Wilbur’s one known expression upon the design of the house was that he have a room and bathroom of his own. The brothers hired Schenck and Williams, an architectural firm, to design the house, along with input from both Wilbur and Orville. Wilbur did not live to see its completion in 1914.
He became ill on a business trip to Boston in April 1912. The illness is sometimes attributed to eating bad shellfish at a banquet. After returning to Dayton in early May 1912, worn down in mind and body, he fell ill again and was diagnosed with typhoid fever. He lingered on, his symptoms relapsing and remitting for many days. Wilbur died, at age 45, at the Wright family home on May 30.[N 9] His father wrote about Wilbur in his diary:
A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.
Orville succeeded to the presidency of the Wright Company upon Wilbur’s death. Sharing Wilbur’s distaste for business but not his brother’s executive skills, Orville sold the company in 1915.
After 42 years living at their residence on 7 Hawthorn Street, Orville, Katharine and their father, Milton, moved to Hawthorn Hill in the spring of 1914. Milton died in his sleep on April 3, 1917, at the age of 88. Up until his death, Milton had been very active, preoccupied with reading, writing articles for religious publications and enjoying his morning walks. He had also marched in a Dayton Woman’s Suffrage Parade, along with Orville and Katharine.
Orville made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 in a 1911 Model B. He retired from business and became an elder statesman of aviation, serving on various official boards and committees, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor agency to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACCA), predecessor to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).
Katharine married Henry Haskell of Kansas City, a former Oberlin classmate, in 1926. Orville was furious and inconsolable, feeling he had been betrayed by Katharine. He refused to attend the wedding or even communicate with her. He finally agreed to see her, apparently at Lorin’s insistence, just before she died of pneumonia on March 3, 1929.
Orville Wright served NACA for 28 years. In 1930, he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal established in 1928 by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. In 1936, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
On April 19, 1944, the second production Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye, flew from Burbank, California, to Washington, D.C. in 6 hours and 57 minutes (2300 mi, 330.9 mph). On the return trip, the airliner stopped at Wright Field to give Orville Wright his last airplane flight, more than 40 years after his historic first flight. He may even have briefly handled the controls. He commented that the wingspan of the Constellation was longer than the distance of his first flight.
Orville’s last major project was supervising the reclamation and preservation of the 1905 Wright Flyer III, which historians describe as the first practical airplane.
Orville expressed sadness in an interview years later about the death and destruction brought about by the bombers of World War II:
We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong … No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is, I regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses.
Orville died at age 76 on January 30, 1948, over 35 years after his brother, following his second heart attack, having lived from the horse-and-buggy age to the dawn of supersonic flight. Both brothers are buried in the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.[N 10] John T. Daniels, the Coast Guardsman who took their famous first flight photo, died the day after Orville.